On the Resurrection of the Dead

Ask most people what happens after you die, and they say “you go to Heaven (or Hell).”  As in, your soul goes to either Heaven or Hell, and leaves your body behind.  Ask them about the Resurrection, and they talk about Jesus.  Christians, according to popular Christian understanding, don’t get bodily raised from the dead like Jesus did; their souls (and not their bodies) go to Heaven.

The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says.  Now, granted, the Bible never lays out a clear timeline for the end times; most of what it says about the and of the world is told through parables, metaphors, dreams, and visions instead of laying out plain and simple what’s going to happen.  But some things are pretty clear and universal throughout Biblical passages on death and what comes next and the end of the world:

1) There is no hard-and-fast separation between body and soul.  That was a pagan philosophy that got grafted in later from the Greeks in the early church.  In the Old Testament, whenever you see the word “soul,” it’s a mistranslation, because there isn’t a word for what we think of as the “soul” in Hebrew.  The Hebrew word nefesh means something closer along the lines of everything that makes you you–personality, spirit, and body, all rolled into one.  It’s your essence, your core, your being, and your physicality is included in it.  In the New Testament, well, pagan Greek philosophy separated out the physical and the spiritual, so Greek does have a word (psyche) for soul-separate-from-body.  But Jesus was a Jewish man talking (mostly) with other Jewish people, so on the rare occasions he uses that word he’s probably meaning the Hebrew concept of nefesh instead.

The word that gets translated as “Spirit” is ruach in Hebrew, or pneuma in Greek, both of which literally means breath.  (In English, it comes from the same root word as “respiration” and “inspiration.”  Spirit is life force, but it’s inherently physical.  Only living bodies breathe.

In the Biblical worldview, we are not, never have been, and never will be free-floating souls who happen to have a physical body to wear around temporarily.  We are whole, body, mind, heart, and spirit together as one.  (I will note that the more scientists learn about the body and mind, the more obvious it is that the two are connected and intertwined in all sorts of ways we hadn’t understood until now: those ancient Jewish people in the desert understood more about the human condition than Greek philosophers did.)

2) Jesus is not the only one who will be resurrected.  The sequence of events is not “Jesus died to save us from our sins, so when we die our souls will go to heaven.”  The sequence is “Jesus died to save us from our sins, and because we are tied to his death and resurrection, we, too, will one day be raised from the dead.  When Christ comes again, the graves will open, and all those who have died will rise again, and all the living and the dead shall be judged, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth and God’s kingdom will be here on earth.”  What exactly that looks like, what the exact timeline will be when Christ comes again, all the other stuff (trials and tribulations, etc., etc.,) that’s pretty hazy and contradictory.  What is perfectly clear every time the subject is discussed is the fact that the dead will be raised–not just spiritually, but physically–and then all people will be judged.

What happens to us in the between-time–the time between when we die and the general resurrection of the dead–is not so clear.  The Bible simply isn’t very concerned with it.  There are hints here and there, and mostly they seem to imply that we are asleep or unconscious in some way, waiting for the day of resurrection.  Sometimes (as in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) they do imply that our souls are either in Heaven or Hell while we wait.  But mostly the answer is “we die and are dead until Christ comes again and raises all the dead.”

Why, then, do modern Christians focus so heavily on “soul going to Heaven/Hell” that we forget about the Resurrection of the body?  Well, first, lots of people today (even practicing Christians) haven’t spent much time studying the Bible, and so most of what they believe on the subject they get from pop culture, just assuming that movies/television/comedians/authors in the general culture know what they’re talking about and that they are accurately portraying something Biblically-based.  Second, the early church (the first few centuries after Jesus’ original followers died out) was dominated by Greeks, and they had all been raised with pagan Greek philosophy, and so they interpreted a lot of the Bible through that lens.  So, among other things, a split between body and soul was injected into Christian beliefs, even though the Bible doesn’t have such a split.  Third, during the American Civil War, there was a spiritual crisis.  It was the first time that such a high percentage of the population died so far from home, with no bodies to bury that the family could ever see.  This really changed the way Americans talked about and thought about death, and there is a really good book-turned-documentary, Death and the Civil War, that explores this.

So now that I’ve written almost 800 words explaining all of this, I can get to what I really wanted to talk about.  I was reading Richard Hays’ commentary on First Corinthians in the Interpretations Bible Commentary series, specifically the section about 1 Corinthians 15.  In that passage, Paul confronts people (Greek former-pagans, who believed in an immortal soul that was completely separate from the physical body it was housed in) who didn’t believe in the resurrection.  Well, they believed that Jesus had been raised, but didn’t believe in the general resurrection to come, i.e. that when Christ comes again he will raise all those who have died.  And Paul is vehement that this is a problem: you cannot separate out Jesus’ resurrection and our resurrection.  If resurrection is not possible for us, then Jesus could not have been raised either.  If God can raise Jesus bodily from the dead, God can raise us bodily from the dead, as well; and because God has raised Jesus from the dead, God will raise us also.  If you don’t believe God will raise us bodily from the dead, according to Paul, you are calling Jesus and all the disciples liars.

Hays brings up how the earliest Christians interpreted this passage (page 259).  In particular, he quotes the words of St. Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian and church leader who was one of the first great Christian writers after the New Testament was finished.  In one of his debates, Justin talks about “godless, impious heretics” who “are called Christians … and say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven.”  St. Justin Martyr considered this absolute heresy, and said of such people: “Do not imagine that they are Christians.”

Um.

Wow.

That’s, uh, that’s pretty direct and straightforward, with not much wiggle room.  And when you read Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, he, too, has no wiggle room.  According to both Paul and Justin Martyr, you cannot be a Christian if you think your soul goes to heaven without your body.  You can only be a Christian if you believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection.

Most American Christians today do not believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection for anyone except Jesus.  They believe that your soul goes to heaven (or hell) without your body.

I am not sure what to say, except that we obviously need more Christian education and Bible study about this.

I’d like to share some words of Hays’ own (page 277), on why this is such an important point:

Paul saw that underneath all the dismaying problems of the Corinthians lay one massive theological fallacy: they denied the resurrection of the dead.  And by doing that, they denied the importance of the world that God created.  They denied–whether they meant to or not–that these flawed bodies of ours are loved by God and will be redeemed.  And therefore–whether they meant to or not–they denied that what we do with these bodies is of ultimate significance in God’s eyes.  So they lapsed into confusion, both moral and theological.

Modern American Christians tend to focus on the “spiritual” aspects of faith and ignore much of the practical aspects, reducing discipleship to merely agreeing with certain beliefs.  And when we do talk about physical bodies and morality, we tend to focus on sex.  Which is important, but still only a small part of what we do with our bodies.

What would a Christian ethic look like if it were based on the idea that the physical–bodies, creation, all if it–matters?  If we really took seriously the idea that God’s saving work isn’t about destroying this fallen world and rescuing the souls of believers from it, but rather focused on the Biblical idea that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself?  That the coming kingdom is based not on the destruction of the old world and the old bodies, but rather on their recreation and resurrection?  There are lots of Christian theologians and writers who have talked about these subjects over the last century or so, I’m not saying anything new … but unfortunately, none of those people have moved the needle very far on what the average Christian-in-the-pew thinks.

Much food for thought.

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The Kingdom of God is like mustard

Lectionary 11B, June 17, 2018

Ezekiel 17:22-24, Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

When Jesus told the crowds the parable of the mustard seed, they would have started laughing at the second sentence.  Guaranteed.  “It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground—“ pause for incredulous laughter as the thought of someone being so deliberately idiotic as to plant mustard.  See, mustard wasn’t really a crop in the middle east in Jesus’ day.  It was—and still is—a weed.  And the variety native to the area is not the crop that we grow today to make the condiment out of.  Like all weeds, mustard is hardy, grows quickly, gets everywhere, and is really hard to get rid of once it’s established.  It is edible, both the greens and the seeds (the seeds are what the condiment is made of), but you don’t go around PLANTING it.  Because you can gather what you need from the wild plants on the hillside, and it will seed itself in your fields without any help from you at all.  The problem is keeping it out of your fields.  So, yes.  Jesus starts talking about someone deliberately planting mustard, and people are going to start laughing.

Which then begs the question.  Why would Jesus compare the kingdom of God to a weed?  A big, mighty weed, sure, but still.  A weed.  That doesn’t fit our normal picture of God and God’s kingdom.  We tend to think of power and might and majesty and awesomeness and inspiration when we think of God.  Weeds are the opposite of that.  Weeds are the things that you groan when you see them.  Why not something like cedar, the tree of kings?  Cedars grow tall and majestic, the tallest trees in the holy land, and they were used to build palaces and temples and the wood is gorgeous and it smells beautiful and everyone looks up to cedar trees.  Or, if not a cedar tree, then a mountain, or something else grand and awe-inspiring.  Or maybe something useful, or profitable.  Something humans at least want.

Why a weed?  Well, maybe we shouldn’t assume that the kingdom of God will always be something we welcome.  I mean, let’s take Jesus’ first sermon in the gospel of Luke, where he says he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and let the oppressed go free.  That’s good news for the poor, the captives, and the oppressed.  If, however, we or people we like are profiting from the fact that others are poor, or benefiting that some people are oppressed, or if we and people we love are the ones holding people captive, then that message is not something we want to hear.  It’s not good news to us.  And there has never been a society in the history of the world—including modern America—in which everyone is free from oppression.  There have always been people taking advantage of one another, and creating systems of laws and culture which benefit some people at the expense of others.  And that’s simply not compatible with God’s kingdom.  Some aspects of our culture will work with the Kingdom, but some simply will not.  And people generally don’t welcome things that tell us we have to change, or tell us we need to give up power and influence and wealth.  So we might be tempted to ignore the growth of God’s kingdom, or even tempted to treat God’s kingdom as if it were a weed.  We might try to kill it, to preserve the garden of our community in the old, comfortable, sinful, oppressive patterns we’re used to.

The thing about mustard is that it’s one of those super-weeds that’s almost impossible to kill.  Like kudzu, or the Himalayan Blackberries we have in the Pacific Northwest.  I have spent many a long hour doing battle with Himalayan Blackberry vines.  No matter how vicious you are with them—no matter whether you chop them off, bulldoze them to the ground, poison them with the most deadly herbicides on the market—they ALWAYS come back.  Just like the Kingdom of God.  Humans can try to subvert it, prevent it, root it out, but it will come despite our best efforts.

The coming of the kingdom does not depend on human efforts.  We can work for the kingdom, yes, but each one of us is only one small part of that work.  Consider the first parable from our reading.  The farmer in that parable plants the seed … and then he waits.  He waits for the earth and sun and rain to do their work.  Eventually he harvests.  For all the things the farmer can do to ensure a good crop, some of the most important things are simply out of his control, as all farmers know.  When we treat the kingdom of God like good seed, we can till the soil and sow the seed and harvest it, but God is the one who gives us the seed and causes it to grow.  And when we treat the Kingdom of God like a weed and try to kill it, well, the Kingdom of God is stronger and more powerful than we are.  It always comes back, whether we like it or not, because God’s kingdom cannot be killed or prevented by any human power.  And although we should work for the Kingdom of God, it will come whether we do or not.

The Kingdom of God is like the mustard bush.  It grows like the dickens.  It’s not an awesome mountain or a graceful, majestic cedar, but it is large and full of life.  It’s a bush that grows much, much taller than humans.  It creates a lot of life, and it shares that life with others.  There aren’t that many big bushes or trees in the Holy Land; not many things that give shade or shelter from the harsh desert sun.  But the mustard bush does.  And so does the kingdom of God.  No matter what storms or burning sun or anything else comes into our life, the Kingdom of God provides shelter.  And that shelter isn’t just for the high and mighty—it’s for everything and everyone, even the ones we don’t necessarily think about, the ones most likely to get pushed out of the rest of the world.  Just like the mustard bush provides shelter for birds’ nests, the Kingdom of God provides shelter and a home for those who have no other home or shelter.

The Kingdom of God is like the mustard bush.  It provides food four our bodies and souls.  Mustard plants are edible, both the leaves and the seeds.  They’re one of those plants where, if you’re walking by the side of the road and you are poor and you have nothing else, you can harvest from the bush.  Just like God’s Kingdom provides for those who are poor and have nothing.  The kingdom of God provides food for our bodies through the work of God’s followers who feed people and make sure that all people have the resources they need to thrive.  The kingdom of God provides food for our soul through the Word of God, Jesus Christ, which nourishes us and helps us grow in faith and love.

The kingdom of God is like the mustard bush.  It provides healing.  Pastes made out of mustard are one of the oldest healing salves there is, and mustard is especially effective for burns.  Even today, if you have a burn that’s not serious enough to go to the doctor with, you can use mustard—the regular condiment you find in your kitchen—and put some on the burn, and it will help it heal faster.  Just like the Kingdom of God provides healing for our bodies through the work of God’s followers who work to prevent harm to people and heal them.  Just like the Kingdom of God provides healing for our souls through God’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation and love.

The kingdom of God is like a weed that will plant itself and grow anywhere, even when we try to root it out.  It grows from the smallest things into something huge that gives life and healing and shelter and freedom to those in need.  May we learn to recognize it when we see it, and value it as we should, and help plant and tend it.  And may the day come quickly when all people receive shelter and healing and nourishment from it.

Amen.

Lectionary 10B, June 10, 2018

Genesis 3:8-15, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1, Mark 3:20-35

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

This week’s Gospel reading has Jesus tangling with the scribes from the Jerusalem temple.  In the chapter prior to this, Jesus had healed people who were sick and cast out demons, causing quite a stir.  He’d also preached and taught and called the twelve disciples, so there was a great crowd everywhere he went.  And there was a ton of controversy about him, because he forgave sinners and was openly friendly with social outcasts, the tax collectors and the sinners.  He ate meals with the people that nice religious people were supposed to despise.  And he’d tangled with the Pharisees because he used a messianic title to refer to himself and they didn’t believe he was the Messiah.  So now here he is.  It’s still the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but he has already created quite a stir.  And people are flocking to him because they know something good is happening, even if they’re not quite sure what.  They see people being healed, they see demons cast out, they see good news being preached, and they are excited.  They don’t know exactly what’s going on—some people think this Jesus fellow is simply nuts—but they know something big is happening.  Something worth keeping an eye on as they figure things out.

And this is when the scribes from Jerusalem show up.  Now, we don’t have a position exactly like the scribes today.  The word “scribe” means “someone who writes for a living,” which in the days before people had typewriters and computers and printing presses meant that they were the people who kept the records.  But don’t think of them as if they were mere functionaries or secretaries.  They were the ones who kept the records … which meant, effectively, that the records meant what they said they did.  They were the ones who recorded everything from history to poetry to business deals, and they were the ones who interpreted it.  In a lot of ways, they were like today’s lawyers and judges.  This was a very important and prestigious position.  No scribe was independently important, but as a class they were a force to be reckoned with.

The other thing about them is that their position and class depended on the patronage of the chief priests and the secular hierarchy.  Poor people can’t afford to pay a scribe to take notes for them, or to interpret the law for them.  Even middle class people only used a scribe’s services rarely.  The Temple and the chief priests were their primary employers, and the rich and powerful were their main other source of income.  And let’s review who the rich and powerful were, at this point in time.  The Romans ruled, either directly or through puppets like Herod.  Israel was a conquered territory ruled by foreign invaders who responded to any hint of rabble-rousing with immediate cruelty to the whole population.  The rich and powerful were either Romans or people who sucked up to them.  And the Romans did not like anything stirring up the ordinary person on the street.

As for the Temple, well, the chief priests were intimately aware that their existence depended on Rome’s good will.  Rome allowed the Temple to exist in the hopes that it would placate the Jewish people.  If the chief priests and temple authorities allowed the beginnings of an uprising, their heads would be first on the chopping block.  Or rather, first on the cross, because that was how the Romans executed conquered people.  Not to mention, the chief priests were supposed to be the ones with the monopoly on God’s power and wisdom, not untutored yokels from the sticks.  So, basically, when these scribes show up to see Jesus, they have a ton of reasons not to like him.  He’s a threat to their power and authority, and they are afraid at what might happen if he incites the crowds around him to violence and the Romans respond.

So when those scribes arrive, they don’t even bother to see what he’s doing or hear his message.  They have already decided he is a threat, and therefore he cannot be from God.  God’s Spirit cannot be present in someone they do not approve of, someone who threatens to upset their applecart.  Therefore, all of his supernatural powers—healing, casting out demons—must come from a demonic source.  It doesn’t make any sense AT ALL, because why would a demon want to cast out demons?  Why would a demon heal people?  Those are the LAST two things a demon would want.  Demons do evil, not good.  That’s their very nature.  But the scribes don’t care.  Jesus is a threat, so he must be discredited at all costs.

Think about that, for a second.  Think about the arrogance and hard-heartedness it would take, to see someone healing the sick and casting out demons, saving people from the very real evils in their lives in the most concrete way imaginable, and declaring that the healing force is demonic and evil.  They are literally seeing God’s power at work in front of their very eyes, and it’s not just that they don’t believe it.  No, it’s worse than that.  They see God’s power, and it’s doing something they don’t approve, so they believe it’s the devil.

And Jesus tells them that they have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the one unforgivable sin.  Now, Christians in various times and places have sometimes interpreted it in various ways, mostly by taking whatever sin they find most immoral and calling it a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  But this passage is actually fairly specific about what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  It’s when you see the Holy Spirit at work and call it evil.  Everything else can be forgiven.  Unbelief, spreading lies about God, killing people, stealing, lying, cheating, and any other sin you care to name, it can all be forgiven.  But not looking at the power of God bringing healing to the world and calling it evil.

Unfortunately, the scribes of old are not the only ones to feel this temptation.  You see, the Holy Spirit is disruptive.  The Holy Spirit is a troublemaker, it is disorderly, upsetting, disruptive.   The Holy Spirit is wind, ruffling our feathers and blowing the dust off us and inspiring us to move out of old, comfortable, worn-out tracks.  The Holy Spirit is flame, setting us on fire and purifying us.  The Holy Spirit is water, washing us clean and drowning our old sinful self and making us re-born children of God.  The Holy Spirit sets prisoners free and makes people see things they have been blind to.  The Holy Spirit forgives sins and crosses boundaries.  The Holy Spirit brings good news to people who are poor and oppressed, and healing to a world broken by sin and death.

None of that is comfortable.  In fact, most of it is really uncomfortable.  Given a chance, most human beings do not like change.  We prefer things we understand, even if they’re not all that great, to things we don’t understand, even when it is so much better than anything we could have imagined.  We are prone to nostalgia, viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses and forgetting all the bad parts of it, as an excuse to keep things the same.  We don’t want to be set on fire, and we don’t want to be reborn, and while we like being forgiven we don’t like others to be forgiven, and by and large we don’t want to see things that might make us think new thoughts, either.  And the more wealth and power and status and influence we have, the less change we want, because after all, we don’t want to risk losing things.  And the more likely we are to count the Spirit’s disruptive action as a threat.

The Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and though it is not always comfortable, it is always good: healing people and communities, inspiring, and working to make the world more like God’s kingdom.  It isn’t always easy to understand, but it is always present.  Whether we understand it or not, whether we want to be disrupted or not, may we always see it for what it is.

Amen.

Keeping the Sabbath

Lectionary 9B, June 3, 2018

Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Psalm 81:1-10, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23—3:6

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees are often categorized as conflicts between the Pharisees’ hidebound blind obedience to the law, and Jesus’ setting the law aside or abolishing it.  That’s not actually the case.  In the first place, there is nothing the Pharisees enjoyed more than debating the meaning of the teachings of the Bible.  Like Jewish people today, their faith is formed by debating about what the Bible says and how best to apply it to daily life. Second, Jesus himself said he had come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.  It’s not that the ancient teachings of God contained in the Old Testament were to be cast aside as no longer relevant; rather, that we see new meaning in them because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  In the third place, have you ever noticed how much time Jesus spent with Pharisees?  Walking with them in our Gospel lesson today, talking with them, eating dinner with them—they spent a lot of time together.  See, Jesus’ interpretations and the Pharisees’ interpretations were actually very similar in a lot of respects.  They were part of the same conversation.  Although they ultimately diverged, it wasn’t because of Jesus’ interpretation of the law; it was because Jesus insisted that he was the Son of Man, the Messiah, which they did not accept.  That’s what they got mad at, in our Gospel lesson today.  Not that Jesus disagreed with them on exactly what was permissible to do on the Sabbath, but that he called himself the Son of Man and lord of the sabbath, a title reserved for God.

I truly hope that everyone here believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Lord of the Sabbath.  So we don’t need to explore that any further.  But I think we do need to talk about the sabbath, what it is, why God gave it to us, and why it matters in our modern world today.

In the Ten Commandments, God ordered us to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  Now, a lot of the time, we tend to think about “keeping the sabbath” as meaning “going to church.”  And, sure, I hope you always go to worship once a week or on a regular basis.  Regularly worshipping with other people helps deepen one’s faith and carries us through spiritual dry spells.  It is very good for us.  But that is actually not what keeping the sabbath holy means.  You see, the sabbath is not primarily a day of worship.  It is a day of rest.  What was the first sabbath?  The seventh day of creation.  God created the universe in six days, and on the seventh God rested.  This is the model that God intends for humans, too.

In Deuteronomy, God commands God’s people: “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”

The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt.  As such, they had worked from sunup to sundown, each and every day, and sometimes longer.  There was no rest, no weekend, no vacation.  You worked every waking moment until the day you dropped down dead.  And that was what was expected of poor Egyptians, too.  Rich people, meanwhile, spent almost no time working.  They lounged around enjoying the fruits of the labor of their servants and slaves.  That was what the Israelites were used to.

That is not the way God wanted them to set up their society, and it’s not the way God wants us to set up our society.  Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy.  In other words, everyone gets at least one day a week that is free from labor, free from worry, free from work.  One day where you don’t have to do anything except rest and relax.  To people who had been slaves, this was an incredible gift.  A whole day to yourself!  A day to recover from all the cares of the workday!  What a blessing.

Did you know that modern science backs up how important rest is?  When people spend too much time working, their body begins to break down.  They are more likely to get sick.  They are more likely to have mental health problems.  They are more likely to have heart attacks.  They are more likely to make bad decisions.  Their relationships with family and friends crumble.  People who don’t have time to physically and mentally rest are more anxious, more depressed, more accident-prone, more sick, and more likely to use drugs and alcohol as a crutch to get through the day.  There are huge, long-lasting negative consequences for people who don’t have enough time to rest and recover, even if they enjoy the work they’re doing.  I have a friend who absolutely loves her job, and so threw herself into it and taking on more and more responsibilities until she was always working.  But she loved it and found it rewarding!  Then she started breaking out in nasty rashes.  Turns out, those rashes were caused by stress.  No matter how much she loved that job, she could not live and breathe it every waking hour.  She had to stop, learn to take time off.  She had to learn how to take sabbath.  We were not created to do nothing but work.  God designed us and created us so that we would have a good balance between work and rest.  And it shows.

In Deuteronomy, however, God isn’t content to say “yeah, you need to take breaks” as a rule for individuals to follow on their own when it was convenient to them.  God goes on, commanding them what they are supposed to do as part of the new society they will be creating in the Promised Land.  Keeping the Sabbath is not just about individual choices; it is also about designing the way society is going to work.  Sabbath is for everyone.  Everyone in society, from the highest to the lowest, needs time to rest, and so God commands his people to see to it.  Everyone, male and female, old and young, rich person and slave, stranger and community member, everyone gets at least one full day of rest each week.  No exceptions.  That is what it means to keep the Sabbath.  It is actually the world’s earliest labor law.  If everyone gets a day of rest, that means that no employer or owner can demand more than a certain amount of work.  Keeping the Sabbath requires that everyone guard their neighbors’ sabbath.  It’s not just about an individual resting; it’s about creating the necessary conditions so that EVERYONE gets to rest.

This is a great gift, but especially it is a gift to the poor, the outcast, the ones society would rather work to death.  Rich people don’t need it, since they could choose to rest as much as they wanted.  This is a gift for the ordinary guy on the street and the poorest worker in town.  And that’s why the Pharisees guarded it so closely.  Because it’s easy to find reasons to fudge it.  For example: hungry people should get food, right?  In those days, to keep the Sabbath, you would cook food the day before and eat leftovers on the sabbath so that even the cook got a day off.  But what if you didn’t quite get the stuff done ahead of time?  Then you have to work on the Sabbath so that people can have food, right?  But if that happens often enough, guess what.  Whoever’s doing the cooking doesn’t get a sabbath.  If it’s just once in a while, that’s not a problem.  But if it becomes a regular thing, if it becomes normal, well, then, guess what.  You’re not keeping the Sabbath holy any longer.  It’s real easy for that to turn into a slippery slope.  Once in a while becomes often becomes always.  And before you know it, the sabbath is meaningless.

We Americans are absolutely TERRIBLE at keeping the Sabbath.  We used to be good at it; the old blue laws that required businesses to be closed on Sundays meant that few people worked then.  But even when you factor that into the equation, Americans are working more than we used to.  The average American worker works 47 hours a week—seven more than full time.  Some of that is white-collar workers who are working longer hours; 60% of people working a full-time job work more than 40 hours per week on average.  And a lot of people are expected to be on call and reachable 24/7.  Not just in case of emergency, but for every little thing.  Then you have poor people working part time jobs.  They can’t get a full-time job, since so many employers these days only hire part-time workers, so they have to get two (or maybe even three) part time jobs, and when you add it all up, they work every day and it adds up to well more than 40 hours a week.  They have no time to rest.  They have no sabbath.

Then there’s how we raise our kids.  We have filled their lives with so many sports and extracurricular activities and homework that they don’t have time to be kids.  They don’t have time to rest and relax and just be.  We have filled their lives with so many things that are good for them that one more will kill them.  One of my friends works with youth, and one day she had a conversation with one of the middle-schoolers in the program.  He asked what she did on Saturday.  Nothing, she said.  She’d lazed around in her jammies all day listening to music and resting after a week that had been particularly stressful.  The kid was shocked and horrified.  A whole day where you did nothing?  Where you rested?  He’d never heard of such a thing.  He wasn’t aware that resting was something a person could do.  He kept trying to suggest things that she could have done, ways of being productive or active.  He had no idea how to rest, or that it might be good for you.

We expect people to work constantly, even kids, and call them lazy when they object.  And then we wonder why people get sick all the time, why loneliness and depression and anxiety and addiction are all skyrocketing.  Now, obviously, the blue laws are a thing of the past and aren’t coming back.  But keeping the sabbath is important, and not just for Christians.  So I wonder: what should sabbath-keeping look like in the 20th Century?  What are ways we could shape our economy and our labor laws and our expectations that would give all people, rich and poor alike, the time to rest that God created us to need?  I don’t have the answers, but it’s a question worth pondering.  May God guide our hearts and minds.

Amen.

Memorial Day, 2018

Memorial Day, May 27, 2018

Jonah 3:10—4:4, 11, Psalm 140, 1 Corinthians 5:20-26, John 11:17-27

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

We are here today, brothers and sisters to give thanks to God for those who give their lives in service to their country.  Unlike Veteran’s Day, today is a day to give thanks specifically for those who have died.  Their bodies lie in the ground here, across this nation, and across the world, in Europe and in Asia, in all the places where they went to serve, to fight, and to die.  Some of the men and women we remember here today were known to us; others are strangers.  But all of them gave much for the service of their country, and it is right and proper to remember that.

Some of them joined the Armed Forces to do just that.  They felt called to serve and risk their lives for the greater good.  Others were drafted, and went because our country said they had to.  Still others joined because it was good pay, or to see the world, or because it was that or jail.  Some of them served in just and righteous wars which had to be fought to defend the world from evil.  Some of them served in conflicts which were neither noble nor necessary.  But whatever caused them to join up, and whether the war they served in was good or bad, they served on our behalf.  They served in defense of our nation, and to accomplish the political and military goals we as a people set for them.  AS we remember their service, and their sacrifices, we remember this: we, here, today, you and I, we are the ones who elected the leaders and voted for the policies which required the sacrifice of their lives.  They did not go to war because it was inevitable; they went because we sent them.  We made the decisions that led to their service and death.  That is a heavy responsibility borne by every member of a free nation.

Whether they were good people or bad, whether they served in a necessary war or a pointless one, whether they died on the battlefield or came home and died of old age, there’s one other thing we need to remember: they are in God’s hands, now, and our God is a God of resurrection.  Being a Christian means that death is not the end of the story, because Christ Jesus has destroyed the power of death.  The God who created this world, who created each one of us, who knew all those who have served and died from their mothers’ wombs to their graves, is at work still.  Their bodies lie in the ground, but when Christ comes again all the graves will open and they and all the dead will come forth from their tombs as Jesus did on Easter.  ON that day, all the living and the dead will be judged.  ON that day, death will be no more.  On that day, all that is war and violence and evil will cease.  On that day, swords will be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks, and military service will no longer be necessary.  On that day, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and everything will be transformed and made new, clean and whole and according to God’s will.

We don’t live yet in that good and gracious world to come, but we yearn for it.  We yearn for it because we miss our loved ones who have gone before us, and because we see the pain and misery in this life.  We see the times when it is necessary that some fight and die so that others may live in peace.  We see the times when we and others make stupid choices and send people out to fight and die senselessly.  WE see all the places where this world is not as it ought to be, all the places where hate and fear and violence and sin and death rule.  And we long for the day when the dead shall arise, and death itself will be defeated, and no one shall suffer and die.

On that day, that great day when God’s will is truly done on this earth, we may be surprised by who all we see there.  The book of Jonah reminds us that our enemies are not God’s enemies.  Nineveh was a great enemy of Israel; they had done many terrible things to Israel.  That was why Jonah wanted God to destroy them, instead of forgiving them.  But all people, no matter who they are, were created by God in God’s image.  God cares for all people—those who worship him and those who do not; those who do what is pleasing in God’s eyes and those who sin.  And God is working to call all people to repentance, to call all people away from evil and sin and death.  All people—and that includes not only us but also our enemies.  On that day when Christ comes again, and the dead are raised, and all the living and the dead are judged, there will be people of every land and nation and tribe and race.  And in that kingdom where God’s will is done, there will be peace instead of violence, love instead of hate, understanding instead of fear.

We wait for that day with hope.  We wait for the day we see our loved ones again and all evil and sin and death are destroyed forever.  We wait for the day when all those who have sacrificed for their country are given the reward they deserve.  We wait with hope, knowing that a new and better day is coming.  But while we wait, we have responsibilities here on earth.  We are called to live according to God’s will.  We are called to work for peace and justice and mercy in our own households, and across the world.  We are called to serve when there is just cause, but also to speak out when a conflict is not just.  As citizens in a democracy, we are called to use our political responsibilities thoughtfully and prayerfully, remembering that even our enemies are made in the image of God.

And always, always, we look forward to that great and glorious day, when wars will cease and Christ will come again, and we shall see him face to face.

Amen.

Love in Action

Easter 4, Year B, April 22, 2018

Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

“We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  Thus begins our reading from First John.  And Jesus also talks about laying down his life for us on the cross in our reading from the Gospel of John: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”  This is sacrifice of the greatest nature.  Being willing to die in order to save someone else.  Imagine what the Christian community would be like if we all followed this example.  It’s a model of Christian life—and death—that doesn’t quite fit with the ways we tend to think about Christian love and generosity.

On the surface, it does.  There’s lots of talk, in Christian circles, about love.  Lots of talk about sacrifice, and service.  Jesus gave everything, so we should too.  But have you ever noticed how often that ethos of loving service and self-sacrifice ends up, in practice, turning into a bit of superficial niceness?

Jesus’ command to love and serve becomes superficial niceness through a refusal to let that love transform our hearts and minds.  It’s relatively easy to paste a smile on our face, even if that means hiding what we’re really feeling.  Have you ever done that?  Maybe you don’t agree with someone, or you’re hurt by something they said, but you want to be ‘nice’ and Christians are supposed to get along, and so you don’t say anything and smile and change the subject.  Now, that niceness right then might prevent a fight … but it also prevents the possibility of reconciliation and healing.  Maybe they didn’t realize they hurt you.  Maybe you didn’t understand where they were coming from.  Maybe, if you’d sat down and talked it out in love, you could have found common ground and a deeper mutual respect.

And maybe not. Love can’t solve all disagreements.  But there is no possibility of that deeper understanding without taking the risk of being open and loving.  That niceness may prevent an open disagreement, but it can’t bring you closer together.  In a world where our whole culture is telling us not to trust one another, to be suspicious of people who think or act or look differently than we do, being nice is at least better than attacking other people.  But it’s not going to change us or our society for the better, either.  It’s not going to overcome the gaping divisions or heal the growing wounds we inflict on one another.  Niceness puts wallpaper over problems.  Love puts in the hard work of healing.  But to love means to make yourself vulnerable, and that’s a scary thing.  So we Christians choose niceness too often.

Another way modern Christians interpret Jesus’ command to love and serve is through the pay-it-forward idea.  Which, at its heart, is a good idea.  Instead of looking at the world as a dog-eat-dog place out to get you, try to increase the amount of good in the world by doing good deeds for others without expecting them to pay you back.  As Christians, we are supposed to be doing good deeds and helping others in the name of Jesus.  But have you ever noticed how often pay-it-forward gets boiled down to simple, cheap, and easy things like “buy coffee for the person behind you in line”?  Buying coffee for others is great.  But if that’s the sum total of the way you act out your Christian love and charity, if the only times you take time, effort, and money out of your busy life to serve others is when it’s cheap and convenient, that’s pretty superficial.  It’s nothing like the deep love for one another Jesus calls us to have, the kind of love that is willing to lay down our lives for the sake of others.

Christian love is transformative.  Laying down your life for the sake of love can change the world.  Jesus laid down his life out of love for the world, and it broke the power of sin and death, opening up the way of salvation for us.  Jesus laid down his life out of love for us, and that changed the world on a fundamental level: it means that however strong the powers of sin and death may seem, they are ultimately going to lose and be defeated by the love of God.  Now, obviously, us laying down our lives for the sake of others isn’t on quite the same scale, but it can still transform the world.

Consider Dashrath Manjhi, of Bihar, India.  Manjhi was a poor laborer who lived in a small town that was 15km away from the nearest hospital … as the crow flew.  Unfortunately, there was a mountain in the way, forcing people to travel 55km to get around it.  In 1966, his wife Falguni Devi was injured and died.  Manjhi set out to prevent anyone else from dying because they could not get to the hospital.  He was a poor man, who had nothing but a hammer and chisel.  It took him 22 years, but he carved a 9m wide road through the mountain, so that now the hospital—and the city it’s part of—is easy to get to for everyone in his region.  It saved lives and opened up economic opportunities for his whole region.  His love, and his sacrifice of 22 years of backbreaking labor, changed everything.  And if you hear this true story and tell yourself “I could never do anything like that,” consider this.  How much less time do you think it would have taken if the rest of the community had helped?  If they’d all come together instead of laughing at him for being so ambitious?

Consider Leymah Gbowee, a Lutheran woman from Monrovia, Liberia, in Africa.  Her country was torn by religious, ethnic, and political turmoil that caused a civil war.  She started working with a church group to help people heal from the trauma of war, and from there she started gathering women from all sides of the conflict and bringing them together to work for peace.  They prayed for peace in churches and mosques, they talked to everyone who would listen, and through their tireless efforts the war was ended.  After the war, they continued to work for reconciliation and peace, bringing people from all different backgrounds together and helping them rebuild their lives.  Gbowee and her followers were tireless in their actions to bring both justice and mercy to a country that was desperately in need of both.  They gave counseling and support to women who had been raped and abused, they gave counseling and job training to young men who had grown up fighting, they insisted that the re-united country build a sustainable future which had room for everyone in it.  They did it out of love for their fellow human beings and hope for the future, and in so doing they transformed Liberia and are bringing peace and stability to the neighboring countries.

Consider Bikers Against Child Abuse.  They’re a motorcycle gang whose goal is to protect victims of child abuse and help them feel safe.  When a child has been abused, they volunteer their time to act as bodyguards as long as the child needs them, to help them understand that their abuser can’t hurt them any more.  It helps children who have experienced the worst things a child can start to feel safe again and heal.  They give of their time and attention so that the most vulnerable children can know the life-giving and positive love that God wants for them.

Consider the Community Cupboard of Underwood.  Before we started it, I knew there were people who were poor and hungry in our community.  But I was surprised, as we started up and learned more, at how many of them there were.  How many people in our community have trouble affording enough food to feed themselves and their families.  But by coming together as a community, now there is help for people who need it.  And we’ve helped with other things, too—helping people find housing they can afford, or household goods, or clothing they can wear to work and not feel ashamed of.  It’s taken a lot of time and effort and resources, and nobody could have done it alone.  But together we’ve improved the lives of people living right here in Underwood.  Out of love for our fellow people of Underwood, a whole lot of people have laid down their time and money, and made our community better.

Hate can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to destruction.  Fear can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to defensiveness.  Self-righteousness can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to judgmentalism and legalism.  The only thing that can transform the world for the better—the only thing that can make this world a little bit more like God’s kingdom—is love.

Jesus Christ showed us what love is by laying down his life for our salvation, and the salvation of the world.  He chose to do what was hard, and painful, because he loved us.  And he calls us to love one another as he has loved us.  Most of us won’t be called to die for someone else, but laying down your life can take many forms: laying down your time, your attention, your money.  And sometimes it’s hard.  But imagine what the world would be like if we all took that command to love seriously.  If we all were willing to lay down our lives, and all that entails, out of love.  May we all learn to follow Jesus’ example.

Amen.

Love Vs. Sin

Easter 2, Year B, April 8, 2018

Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1—2:2, John 20:19-31

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Whenever I read the first chapter of the first letter of John, I remember worship as a kid, back in the days of the green hymnal, the LBW.  If you remember, the part of the confession used at the beginning of service was taken from this passage: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  This piece of scripture, repeated over and over, sunk in deep to my mind and heart and shaped the way I saw God and humans.  All humans are sinners, but God loves us and saves us anyway.  This was—and still is—the bedrock certainty on which my faith rests.

Which is why I was shocked and confounded, in my mid-twenties, to deal with a woman who complained about having to confess each week—because, she insisted, she was not a sinner and didn’t need to confess anything.  She was a good person who followed the commandments, so, she claimed, she had no need of confession and forgiveness.  I love this passage from First John, it is beautiful and poetic and meaningful.  But in order to understand it, I think we need to unpack a little bit what it means when it talks about “sin,” and why it is so certain—and so right—that all human beings are sinners in need of forgiveness.

We talked about what “sin” is in Confirmation the other day.  And when I asked the kids if they could define “sin,” the answers were sort of circular.  “Sin” is breaking the commandments and doing things God doesn’t like.  Why doesn’t God like them?  Because they’re sins.  Which isn’t wrong, but it also doesn’t help us figure out what sin is in a complicated world.  And so we went back to Mark 12:30-31, when Jesus tells his disciples that all of God’s commandments and teachings can be summed up in two phrases: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Which is why one of the most ancient definitions of sin is that sin is anything that curves you in on yourself, away from God and your neighbors.  Sin is the thing that breaks relationships.  Sin is what makes us selfish, suspicious, and callous.  Sin is when we see injustice and cruelty and look the other way.  Sin is when we surround ourselves with people we like and ignore or get suspicious of anyone who is different.

The word “fellowship” appears four times in just this one chapter.  Now, fellowship means community, companionship, a relationship of equality and fairness.   To have fellowship with the community is to have fellowship with God, and to walk in the light is to have fellowship with God and one another.  But you can’t have fellowship while sinning.  Sin and fellowship are mutually exclusive.  Or, to take a verse from the next chapter of 1 John, “Whoever says ‘I am in the light’ while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness.”  And when the Bible talks about spiritual siblings like this, it doesn’t just mean people we like who are like us.  It means all children of God.  If you hate God’s children, you are walking in darkness.  If you are indifferent to the pain and suffering of God’s children, you are walking in darkness.

One of the greatest sins of our culture—the root of many other sins—is a belief that compassion and kindness and generosity are “stupid,” and that selfishness and coldness are somehow “smarter.”  It’s a sin full of self-justification.  When you believe that, you can walk past anyone who needs help, and tell yourself that you’re ignoring them because you’re smart, not because you’re selfish.  You can attack anyone who is different than you or who disagrees with you, and tell yourself you’re being courageous, not cruel and hate-filled.  You can spread all the darkness you want, and tell yourself it’s not sin, it’s being realistic.  And I don’t know anybody living in America today, who hasn’t given in to that temptation at least a little bit occasionally.  We are all sinners, stumbling around in the dark and telling ourselves it’s light.

That kind of darkness—selfishness and hate and callousness hidden under self-serving justifications—has no place in God’s kingdom.  God is love, as John tells us over and over again.  That’s the core of who and what God is, and that’s the core of God’s plan for us: that we will love God and love one another by everything that we say and do, and that we will never neglect to do the loving thing that praises God and serves our neighbors.  Our whole culture is marinating in that darkness, it shapes our thoughts and how we see the world, and as long as we continue in that spiritual darkness, God’s living Word, Jesus Christ, is not in us.

Thanks be to God for the forgiveness in Christ Jesus.  We can’t purge ourselves of the evil in our hearts and minds.  It keeps creeping in no matter what we do, and so often we don’t even recognize it for what it is.  But that’s why Christ gave his life.  That’s why he became human like us, to share in our world and be connected to us in baptism, so that we might share in his death and resurrection, and be washed clean.  We are connected with Jesus, who forgives our sins when we confess them, and helps us live towards the glorious light of God’s coming kingdom.

While we live in this life, we cannot fully be in the light all the time.  Darkness creeps back in: all the temptations that curve us in on ourselves, away from right and life-giving relationships with God and our neighbors.  Jesus forgives us, fills us with his Holy Spirit, calls us out into the world to spread God’s love in word and deed … and eventually, sooner or later, we fail.  But God is faithful even when we are faithless.  God is love, even when we are filled with callousness, cruelty, selfishness, fear, and hate.  And no matter how far we fall, no matter how wrong we go, no matter how much we harden our hearts and tell ourselves we’re being smart to do so, God keeps coming to us and breathing his Holy Spirit into us and calling us to repentance and change.

God is love, and we cannot follow God unless and until we learn to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  When that happens, when we learn to put God’s love into action and not just pious words, amazing things happen.  We’ll hear some of the stories of those amazing things in our readings from the book of Acts this Easter season, including our first reading today.  After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, after the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the followers of Jesus set about building a community based on God’s love.  And they started by making sure nobody was going hungry, that everybody had what they needed.  They made sure that everybody had what they needed, that nobody was forgotten or ignored by the community.  Now, they didn’t go about it in the best way for long-term stability, and people started lying and undermining the system pretty soon after.  This is a pattern we see often in Christian history.  The Spirit comes, amazing things are accomplished, and then human sinfulness comes in and brings things to an end.  And then the Spirit comes in someplace else, inspiring humans to great acts of love and community.  No matter how much we fail, no matter how much we turn to darkness, God’s light keeps breaking into our lives, teaching us to live in love with God and our neighbors.

How has God’s love and light broken into your world, recently?  I know the world can seem like a grim and heartless place full of darkness and death, but we worship a God who can bring light and life to every time and place—even to the grave.  We worship a God who cannot be kept out, a God who brings new life and resurrection even in the midst of death, who brings love in the midst of hate, generosity in the midst of selfishness, and forgiveness for all our sins.

The God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, who inspired Christian communities in Acts and throughout history since then, is at work in us and among us.  The God whose very nature is love is calling us to love God and one another, and to put that love into action, even in a world that calls such love stupid and foolish and unrealistic.  The God who forgives all who repent is softening our hard hearts and calling us to return to him, calling us into loving fellowship not just with him but with all his children.

Amen.